The Political Is Personal

“Marcos and Memory: The Past in Our Future”
Sheila Coronel
2022 Adrian E. Cristobal Lecture

One curious development, still within the first quarter of the third year of a history-changing global pandemic, is that the audiovisual material which most Filipino netizens are burring over at the moment is expectedly streaming, but it’s neither a film nor a TV series. It’s the latest installment of the decade-plus Adrian E. Cristobal Lecture Series, sponsored by the Writers Union of the Philippines. Titled “Marcos and Memory: The Past in Our Future,” the material promised topical urgency in the wake of the so-far certain possibility of the Marcos family recapturing the seat of power that their patriarch, Ferdinand Sr., occupied for over two decades and refused to let go until he was expelled by a popular uprising.

11011The Marcos strategy – proffering the only son instead of his smarter sisters – resonates with the Catholicized culture’s belief in a messiah sent by a stern father to point the way to salvation; it also dodges the gender association with the still-alive and possibly already-daft Imelda, notorious during her heyday for her tackily excessive shopping sprees and hatred of anything that reminded her of how dirt-poor she used to be. This is enhanced by the likelihood that the sisters may be in charge of their father’s plundered billions, with Imee exposed when her grandchildren’s names were listed as beneficiaries in the Pandora Papers leakage in 2021, and side reports of the ongoing Credit Suisse scandal reminding readers that the Marcos couple were some of the bank’s most infamous confidential depositors.

Portions of the pseudonymous contracts drawn up with Credit Suisse by the Marcos couple. From Raissa Robles, “How the Law Caught Up with the Philippines’ Imelda Marcos and Her Stolen Millions,” South China Morning Post (November 17, 2018).

11011The Marcos campaign has proved particularly divisive for the generation that was able to participate in the anti-dictatorship movement that became an inexorable force when oppositionist-in-exile Benigno S. Aquino Jr. was assassinated upon his return to the country in August 1983. Those who count themselves as keepers of the democratic flame lament that later generations have been miseducated and incapable of the intelligence and strength of character to resist the Marcoses’ brazen attempt to launder their ill-gotten wealth, if not add a few billions more. A number of people who reversed course point to the post-Marcos administrations’ failure in preventing the reassumption of political influence of sectors that Marcos had started to marginalize, specifically the old oligarchy and the church (exempting pro-US neocolonial compradors, of which even Marcos strove to depict himself as one).

The Marcos regime: at the start (1965 presidential campaign) and at the end (1986 people-power uprising). From “Marcos and Memory,” courtesy of Sheila Coronel.

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11011Most people invested in the issue would have picked one or the other position to uphold; a select few would have rejected both. Sheila Coronel, Toni Stabile Professor of Professional Practice in Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, performed the most unexpected act of deconstruction imaginable, by placing herself in both camps in order to explain why the Marcosist phenomenon is more deeply entrenched than we think, and why in order to confront it, we must begin by confronting ourselves. The premise of her lecture turns inside-out the self-righteous tendency to regard the support for the Marcoses as our Other, a monstrosity that only needs to be identified so it can be successfully resisted.

Sheila Coronel with her father, lawyer Antonio Coronel. From “Marcos and Memory,” courtesy of Sheila Coronel.

11011“If Marcos has such a hold on our collective imagination, it is in part because of the lies and half-truths he and his courtiers have told over and over again until they were accepted as fact,” Coronel leads off. “The Marcoses have been at this since 1935…. The rewriting of history didn’t begin after the fall [of the regime in 1986].”[1] Coronel then proceeds to recall how her own father, a well-known lawyer, defended individuals accused of acting on behalf of the martial-law administration. “He teased me about my objections to his clients but not to the shoes and dresses his lawyer’s fees bought me.”

11011The level of familiarity with which Coronel spells out her argument paradoxically provides her with an authority missing in those of us who profess to stand apart from the loyalty and devotion that the Marcoses inspire. (Essential disclosure: Coronel was a classmate and campus-journalism colleague during my first undergraduate program at the national university – and those of us who closely observed her could already see her capacity for ambitious, reflexive, research-based writing; her many global distinctions since then confirmed her determination to use her gifts in the service of the least-privileged among us.)

11011Toward the end of her narrative-driven account, she shared her recurrent nightmare of repeatedly attempting to write but with her pen failing to generate any ink. This is the point where she prescribes a call to action. Accepting the worst qualities that the Marcoses represent as an essential component of the Philippine character could easily result in our quiescence, if not despair. On the contrary, Coronel maintains, “resisting normalization means resisting disempowering narratives.”

11011It would be pointless to continue finding fault with whoever we believe should have been responsible for ensuring that the Marcoses’ record of atrocities and abominations be inscribed in the country’s educational curriculum, but just to make our terms clear (and affirm Coronel’s point): our historians and popular-culture artists have done everything they could to set the record down, even when the Marcos patriarch was still around. Coronel’s text (available both as a live recording and as a published transcription[2]) suggests ways in refining, if not redefining, the Marcos narrative, and if the present trend persists, it will soon be time to designate our younger subjects to take charge of fixing the mess that their elders left them in.

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First published March 6, 2022, in The FilAm; reprinted in May 2022 issue ofThe FilAm: Newsmagazine Serving Filipino Americans in New York.

[1] I thought of going over Roland Barthes’s 1957 text Mythologies (trans. Annette Lavers, New York: Noonday, 1972) to check if he had any suggestions on how to “read” the delivery of a lecture. He didn’t cover the topic, but I came up with something more useful: “Myth on the Right” (150-56), which for some reason I completely forgot after thinking it would be applicable in discussing the then-recently deposed Marcos dictatorship. As part of a section titled Myth Today (as opposed to the book’s eponymous primary section), Barthes describes myth as being “statistically” on the right, and enumerates seven rhetorical forms that typify bourgeois myth, all fascinating but too complicated to bring up here. The first property he mentions, for example, is inoculation, “which consists in admitting the accidental evil of a class-bound institution the better to conceal its principal evil” (151). The succeeding figures are: the privation of History; identification; tautology; neither-norism; the quantification of quality; and the statement of fact.

[2] Still on the matter of approaches to evaluating a lecture, all the academic discussions I could find dealt with transcriptions rather than with audiovisual material; I look forward to more balanced coverage now that streaming websites have made available some of the more famous recordings by prominent thinkers of the recent past. Regarding “Marcos and Memory,” which was delivered live at the Facebook page of the Unyon ng mga Manunulat ng Pilipinas, the recording has been uploaded on the organization’s YouTube page, along with preliminary material and subsequent Q&A exchanges. Coronel’s draft, on the other hand, was reprinted in Rappler as well as in Positively Filipino, MindaNews (with a Cebuano translation), and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (which Coronel founded). The audio recording of the lecture has also been posted on the PCIJ’s Spotify channel.

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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